The Bardsey Island of Twenty Thousand Saints is as rich, bizarre and wonderful as any fictional land. Each time you pick the novel up, you’ll find yourself eagerly anticipating an absolute sense of transportation, as Fflur draws you into the world of Bardsey until you feel you’ve walked those mountain paths, felt that sunshine on your skin, tasted the salt on that breeze.
It’s so vividly portrayed that it seems impossible this place actually exists in the real world, yet it does, and Flur’s ability to evoke it so powerfully stems from six weeks as the island’s writer in residence, making us wonder how much of her there is in the character of Mererid, the poet in residence.
Mererid is just one of the island’s visitors, each presenting a different view of the island, from sensual ecologist Elin to single-minded documentary-maker Leri. Of the temporary inhabitants, archaeologist Deian offers a more complex view of island life, having spent his childhood years there until the disappearance of his mother Delyth when he was 18.
His mother’s close friend Viv still lives on the island, having assumed the role of hermit nun when Delyth went missing. The missing piece of the puzzle seems to lie with the incarcerated Iestyn, Deian’s former best friend and Viv’s son, revealing the extent of the tangled relationships on the isle.
Delyth’s disappearance is the mystery at the heart of the tale, and the final revelation of what may have happened to Delyth so long ago is worth the wait – hauntingly beautiful in its imagery.
More than this, though, I found myself drawn to the slowly unfolding personal stories of the clutch of characters. This motley group are a joy to read about, each with their own foibles and motives for being there. While not all are pleasant, all are interesting, so that by the time you finish the book you’ll find yourself missing the lot of them, along with the scenery and wildlife of Bardsey, from the seals with “their slick bodies, their unearthly moans” to the goats “
Near the end of the novel, several key characters leave the island, allowing Fflur to reveal her descriptive talents anew as she draws the contrast between the mainland and Bardsey, with bursts of colours, noises, bedlam that stuns the returnees, but also entices them with promises of longed for flavours and amenities.
There is poetry in Flur’s writing, and the smattering of Welsh, whether you understand it or not, only adds to the sense of lyricism.
The setting of Bardsey is key – separated from the mainland by a sometimes impassable sea, an island where the and turns up the bones of possible saints, where nature is raw, unyielding and often mysterious – we loved scenes describing countless sea birds fatally drawn to the light of the lighthouse, and the magic of the seal cave.
In fact, I would have been happy to meander these scenes forever, forgetting plot and adventure in favour of simply submerging myself in the island’s atmosphere.